Sometimes I go to the theater because I love the play or admire the writer; other times it's because I'm a fan of a particular director, designer, or actor. Occasionally -- I'm less proud to admit -- I'll see a production because there's a celebrity attached to it, or because the press representative has nagged me into submission, or simply because the dates fit conveniently into my schedule. Then there are the times -- as is the case with Nina Wise's Now What? -- when I go to the theater out of pure curiosity.
There is no better reason for doing something in life, I believe, than curiosity. And Now What? provides plenty to be curious about. The show is part of Z Space Studio's "Here/Now" season -- a so-called "Festival of Optimistic Voices" aimed, in that endearingly nutty-crunchy way so particular to Northern California, at "celebrating the vitality and promise of the progressive vision for America." Described in amorphous terms in the literature as a "performance salon," Wise's creation improbably combines two formats rarely seen together on the same stage: talk show and interpretive dance.
Here's how it works: In the first half of the evening, a special guest, invited by Wise, gives his or her forward-looking take on some pressing political, environmental, spiritual, or philosophical issue du jour. Over the run of the festival, invitees have ranged from Medea Benjamin, founding director of the human rights organization Global Exchange, to spiritual guru Jack Kornfield. But it's the second half of the program that really intrigued me -- the part in which Wise, having listened to the pundits' discourse from the front row of the audience or out in the wings, proceeds, as the literature explains, to "distill their answers into an evening of improvisational theater." This, I had to see.
The night I attended Now What?, Randall Hayes, founder of the ecological activist group Rainforest Action Network, conversed with veteran radio commentator Wes "Scoop" Nisker. (Nisker's own solo production, Be Here Wow, is also part of the festival, playing on alternate nights to Now What?) The discussion proceeded in a fashion more or less typical of the talk-show format. Hayes, an affable fellow with gray hair and a genial smile, chatted eloquently for an hour about everything from his plans to turn Oakland into a "sustainable city" -- that is, one that recycles all its trash, is fully powered by alternative energy, and is populated by green-fingered citizens who spend their free time growing organic produce from rooftop community gardens -- to his view of the world as a giant network of interdependent systems.
Nisker, under his toilet-brush shock of hair, nodded gamely and asked questions in the laid-back style of the old pro. I learned quite a bit from the discussion: San Francisco, for instance, is the greenest city in the country; hurricanes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters come about as a result of the Earth "spasming"; to the Hopi Indians, the word "sacred" does not mean "special" or "venerable," it means "functional." (Hayes' great-grandmother was half Blackfoot Indian, by the way.) The pair took occasional sips of water, smiled a lot, crossed and uncrossed their legs. All well and good. But now what?
Anyone expecting the statutory Q&A would have been disappointed. For the discussion was followed by what can best -- and yet barely adequately -- be described as a performance involving improvised movement and text. Wearing a loose black dress, Wise stepped out under the lights and began swaying meditatively with her arms above her head. At first, her unkempt Martha Graham-esque motion seemed comical, almost ludicrous. "Oh no," I thought, suddenly seized with panic, "the woman's actually pretending to be a tree." I wondered if the performer would attempt to embody an entire endangered rain forest next.
But something strange happened. From the moment that Wise started to partner her movement with words, bits of Hayes and Nisker's discussion came into focus more poignantly and wittily than had been the case the first time around. It all began with a casual little story about driving to the local farmers' market. "I'm doing my part," said Wise proudly, of the act of buying environmentally sound, locally grown organic produce from the market instead of shopping at Safeway. Yet there was a hilarious irony to this seemingly innocent yarn. For coupled with the eco-smugness was a sense of heavy guilt over doing something as un-environmentally friendly as driving to get groceries. Wise's body physically buckled with shame at the thought of her gas-guzzling car, exchanging breezy, extended movements for slumping, woebegone ones.
At that point in her presentation, Wise seemed completely overwhelmed. The farmers' market, which the performer returned to several times during her improvisation, like a leitmotif, became a microcosm of a much larger, and infinitely more complex, system, one in which a simple rubber band tied around a bunch of organic asparagus leads to thoughts about rubber trees, and, somewhere down the line, entire rubber tree forests. Hayes had lucidly expressed the idea of systems within systems in conversation with Nisker earlier in the evening. But Wise's offbeat coupling of surreal movement and down-to-earth anecdote somehow made the concept more visceral and real.
Wise moves and speaks like a veteran jazz musician; there's structure and poise to her every riff. But that doesn't mean she isn't susceptible to hitting the occasional bum note. The night I attended, for instance, the performer appeared to leave Planet Earth completely during an ecstatic ode about a recent trip to Yosemite. I could just about identify with the idea of jumping in and out of icy-cold streams, but I was forced to draw the line at the part in which Wise described, in dizzy, euphoric terms, the business of running around in the nude, sniffing and kissing slabs of sun-drenched granite.
For those with an appetite for the curious, Now What? is a rewarding experience: Simply being in the same room as this consummate improviser for a couple of hours is to watch the unknown unfold before your eyes. Yet to reduce Wise's work to a mere curiosity, like a sideshow at a traveling fair, is to do it a great disservice. For I was more deeply moved and entertained by Wise's eccentric take on the evening's discussion than I was by the discussion itself. It was Wise who distilled something of the complexity of living in today's world for me that night, transforming the evening's polite discourse into something bizarre, beautiful, and brave. Talk shows and public forums should consider doing away with the boring old Q&A and hiring Wise to wrap things up instead.